Tag Archives: Philip Larkin

What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

_____

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‘Like an enormous yes’

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

The words ‘jazz poetry’ are enough to make any sane person reach for their Revolver.

The mental image is the old stereotype of a turtlenecked beatnik, rambling at a dozen pals in a basement coffeehouse, as his roommate attempts to accompany him with some beginners’ clarinet.

But poetry about jazz is a different proposition, and something that’s likely more palatable. This occurred to me recently when Sidney Bechet’s recording of ‘All Of Me’ shuffled onto my speakers, showcasing the New Orleans native’s soprano sax lines, loud and clear.

The same sound prompted the British poet Philip Larkin, a jazz record reviewer in his spare time, to pen an ode to Bechet, and the New Orleans sound and scene that he emerged from.

‘For Sidney Bechet’ is not unlike one of jazzman’s own solos – compact, emotive, perfectly poised. It pays homage to the front (and back) rooms of The Big Easy, and recognizes the voice that Bechet and his contemporaries gave to its community a century ago.

What’s more, Larkin also provides the single best description of jazz in words – a sound which falls “like an enormous yes”. Play that thing!

‘For Sidney Bechet’

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.  My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

_____

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Dylan and the art of doing nothing

Another self portrait

Another self portrait (Looney).

MY automated to-do list usually kicks in at about 6am. In fact, it usually wakes me.

I lie in the Philip Larkin pre-dawn working through my planned tasks before gradually hauling myself up and into another day.

This happens on work days, on non-work days, on holidays. This morning, driving to the train station, my wife pointed out that I even manage to obsess about things I have to do on a day, like this, when I really don’t have to do anything.

And doing nothing, at the right time and in the right place, is just as important to me as doing something.

That’s why I crave the mornings when I wake and realise that my mental diary’s been closed overnight, that my mind and the hours ahead are clear.

With this clarity comes rest and with this rest comes peace of mind.

_____

Bob Dylan achieved this peace of mind, albeit briefly.

Waking early and at ease one morning last week I rose, walked into the sitting room, and turned on the stereo.

The most recent Dylan release, a bootleg series issue called Another Self Portrait, is made up of songs written when he was, to the public at least, living the life of a recluse in the Catskill Mountains.

The bulk of the collection’s 35 songs were either rehearsed or written in this period, in 1968 and early 1969, and recorded in New York City in 1970 when Dylan returned to live there.

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Most are covers, something Dylan was criticised for when he included other versions of the same songs on his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Hearing these songs now though, at a remove of more than 40 years and in a digital age inconceivably different to the era of their recording, the listener is struck by a mood of peace and rest.

This feeling is most apparent on Time Passes Slowly #1, an early version of a track that appears on the album New Morning.

Dylan’s languid vocal is Walden-in-Woodstock. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” is his entry line.

Later he sings, before his voice is joined by an blissed-out George Harrison vocal:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere…

_____

Having no reason to go anywhere that morning I laid on the sofa and listened to half of Another Self Portrait. I encountered Railroad Bill (“never worked and he never will”), Thirsty Boots (“take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile”) and All The Tired Horses (“in the sun”).

Much of this was and is beautiful art, offering everything except urgency.

That most of it was conceived during a period of apparent R&R for Dylan offers a lesson in how the best work can be done when the mental diary is cleared, or binned.

Or as the self portraitist puts it: “time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”.

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The light above the Liffey

osbourne

The Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books, 1889.
Walter Frederick Osbourne
Pic: National Gallery of Ireland

IT’S hot in Ireland these days. By Irish standards.

It’s also bright, very bright. Last month saw six consecutive days of more than 14 hours sunshine in Dublin, a 71-year record.

This is rare in a city which, since I moved to it almost 20 years ago, is usually marked in my mind by wet streets, gusting River Liffey breezes and intermittent sunbursts between showers. To me Dublin is usually cast in an autumnal hue, the flavour of which struck the English poet Philip Larkin.

“Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops”.*

The past winter saw even less pewter light than usual, with Dublin recording its dullest January since 1964. This was a another Celtic twilight.

I dimly recall weeks of grey runs in the park, low clouds and early nights. (The New Year gloom has one advantage though – it allows Dubliners to see a series of rare Turner prints at the National Gallery. Each January an exhibition is scheduled to coincide with the pale light to ensure the drawings are not damaged.)

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.

Sun, sea, sky. Dublin 2013.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This murk seems a world away from the brilliant light of the past week in the capital. Dublin itself appears entirely different when illuminated for 14 hours a day, with the accompanying heat and dry air. The mood of the city and its citizens is lifted.

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ is the standard question.

Actually it would. But not because pale Dubliners would acquire a Mediterranean hue or buy sunglasses – and have a genuine reason to wear them.

For one thing, aside from its mood benefits it’s speculated that the summer sun’s higher levels of Vitamin D can help prevent cancer – an interesting argument for a country with, depressingly, the second highest rate of the disease in the world .

We’ll never have Californian levels of sun, though, despite the best efforts of global warming and a changeable Gulf Stream. Dublin is not a city of extremes and neither is its weather. The days of sunshine this month will be mirrored by the gray days of midwinter. The true, unchanging Irish sky is somewhere in between.

More than a century ago the Dublin artist Walter Frederick Osbourne painted a bookseller’s stall at Aston Quay, close to O’Connell Bridge in the centre of the city.

The carts, gas lamps and river punts are all long gone. The bridge remains, as does the Custom House behind and, above it all, that milky red, coppery evening sky – the light above the Liffey.

________

* Philip Larkin, ‘Dublinesque’, Collected Poems (The Marvell Press & Faber and Faber, 2003), p 140

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